Brain science suggests “mind wandering” can help manage anxiety

Srini Pillay, MD
Srini Pillay, MD, Contributor

When we think of anxiety disorders, we generally think of them as uncomfortable emotional responses to threat. These responses may include symptoms such as palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, or absolute paralysis. While there is nothing inherently wrong in thinking about anxiety this way, a recent study pointed out that there is an entirely different way of thinking about anxiety that may be even more helpful. According to psychologist Kalina Christoff and her colleagues, anxiety may be more appropriately thought of as “mind-wandering gone awry.”

The advantages of mind-wandering

In your brain, there are circuits that promote mind-wandering and they are not all bad. In fact, these very circuits help you maintain a sense of self, understand what others are thinking more accurately, become more creative, and even predict the future. Without your mind-wandering circuits, your brain’s ability to focus would become depleted, and you would be disconnected from yourself and others too.

In addition to the natural and frequent tendency for your mind to stray, it also has automatic constraints too, to ensure that it does not stray too far. When daydreaming during a boring lecture, for example, your brain may jerk you back into reality.

When mind-wandering goes awry

One of the things that a wandering mind is in search of is meaning. By connecting the past, present, and future, it helps you compose a narrative to connect the dots in your life. This narrative is constantly being updated. But sometimes, the wandering mind can encounter threats. Rather than proverbially “whistling in the dark,” the brain can overreact to these threats.

In the brain of an individual with generalized anxiety disorder, for example, the anxiety processor (the amygdala) is disrupted. Although it has strong connections to the “inner eye” (attention), it lacks a connection to the brain circuits that signal how important or significant a threat is. Without the ability to assess the significance of threats, they can all feel the same.

As a result, the “inner eye” gets fixated on negative thoughts. This fixation is a way of constraining the mind too, but it is not actually helpful. Anxious people focus more on external threats in an exaggerated way. They become glued to the threats. Anything from being teased to being ticked off feels much more troubling than it would to someone without an anxiety disorder. And it’s not just conscious threats that grab your attention. It’s subliminal threats too! Threats, of which you are completely unaware, capture your brain’s attention. A mind, once free to wander, is desperately forced to stop in its tracks in what can be construed as a catastrophic confusion of constraints.

Let your mind wander away from perceived threats

When your brain has automatically grabbed your wandering mind, and fixed your attention on threat, rather than getting a proverbial “grip” on reality, you actually have to loosen your grip on your threat-focused reality — allow your mind to wander! As Christoff and colleagues put it, you de-automatize your constraints.

Because your brain’s inner eye has its resources fixed on the threat, it gets progressively exhausted too. You can’t really summon it to help you suppress the anxiety, or get your mind off of it. Instead, you have to reactivate your mind-wandering circuits to give your attention a break.

Practically speaking, there are a few ways to do this. First, identify the negative spiral that has occurred like a pothole into which you have fallen on a mind-wandering journey. Simply name the feeling you are feeling and recognize that you need a mental reset. Rather than deliberately trying to suppress the feeling, accept that your mind is wandering, and that the fixation on threat is not the constraint solution you are looking for.

To counter this constraint, up the ante on the mind wandering — wander even more. If you’re at work, you could keep a knitting kit and start using it just when anxiety strikes, or if at home, you could go out and do some gardening. Meditation is also an effective way to get out of the fixed threat hole.

So when you’re next feeling anxious or wired, try allowing your mind to do what it naturally does — wander! You can bring it back to task gently, without fearing that you have lost your way. Or you can expect that it is wired to switch between wandering and focused states, and it will eventually come back on its own. The more you mindfully interact with this switch, the more adept your brain will become at initiating it.

Comments:

  1. AMITABH JAYASWAL

    Thanks ALL for illumination.
    I’m a Bioinformatics researcher and keen on doing adding value to your research interests. As an individual I’ve had to win a long drawn struggle with and over myself from Depression. Anxiety yet knocks me down at times. Reading articles on psychology help me understand mind issues and ‘cure’ them.
    I’d get deep personal satisfaction if I could add value to these discussions and/or orchestrate the trickling down of benefits to the end-beneficiaries-fellow humans. How may I?
    Regards

  2. ParthaSarathi

    The only solution for mind wandering is “let it off” with awareness
    and meditation to a large extent reduces the wandering and a controlled mind becomes quietened down over a period of time.

  3. R. T Neary

    Ray – It all makes a lot of sense, if you have intermediate pauses of a positive nature – and assembling the nice aspects of them into a small bundle. and then tucking it under the right arm.

  4. Jennifer Leighton

    Serotonin boosting foods are great unless one already has an elevated serotonin, for whatever reason. Then the foods mentioned can increase anxiety to almost psychotic proportions. Mental wandering then becomes dangerous! In addition with people who have malnutrition, malabsorption and few chewing surfaces, these foods also can cause problems.

  5. Garth Everson

    TO Andy:
    Is it something about opening those windows for once? Letting the “chemicals” out?

    Garth

  6. Cherie Zarr

    This reminds me of a strategy I use when my panic disorder locks into fearful, negative thoughts that seem to overwhelm me. I call it “distraction” rather than mind wandering but it comes down to the same thing. The most effective distraction is to reach out to another person for a conversation or comment or a visit. Their presence and/or words often breaks the grip anxiety has over me and gives my panic-exhausted brain a chance to relax, if only momentary. It can be very effective.

    • Srini Pillay

      Mind wandering start with decoupling from perception. i.e. distracting yourself. But the process then requires going inward-choosing to daydream so that you can traverse the wonderful parts of your brain that focused thinking never reaches. It’s a way of training your attention to be inward, and to also search and be curious, rather than stuck. Distraction can change activation of the brain’s anxiety center, but to turn on the unfocus circuit, you probably need to stay “unfocused” though mind wandering. Thank you for your wonderful reflection.

      • Cherie Zarr

        I cannot help but question your comment about focusing inward. When anxiety threatens to overwhelm, it is because inward focus is too dominant and one feels locked inside swirling anxious thoughts, oblivious to the outside world. The need to “get outside of myself” motivates me to reach out for distraction to escape the seemingly “stuck” internal focus. Panic thoughts feel powerful and require a strong strategy to fight them.

  7. Patricia Wightman Wortelboer

    Patricia Wightman
    I use mind wondering with Elite Athletes to help them deal with precompetitive anxiety and pressure !

    • Srini Pillay

      How wonderful that you use this in such high pressure situations. I think of mind wandering like the spoon that picks up all of the delicious bits of who we are (unlike “focus” which is like a fork.) Mind wandering also allows for greater self connection, and what I call “psychological center of gravity.” In high pressure situations, this can be a life saver. Thanks for your comment.

  8. Judith de Firmian

    Try Sitting/standing still, focus on nothing for a few second try for a minute or longer bringing yourself into a relaxed state and then resume what you were doing before without as much or any anxiety .

    Judith
    MdR, CA

    • Katherine

      Don’t think you’re quite getting the intensity of the experience of anxiety disorder. If it was that easy to get yourself into a relaxed state in the short time you mention, it wouldn’t be an anxiety disorder.

  9. Rose Corey

    Is ‘Restless Leg Syndrome’ a physical symptom of an anxiety disorder?

  10. H

    Yes, makes sense…..but what if there is a rational basis for the anxiety??

    • Kelly B.

      I have found allergies and anxiety can cause both and I usually try to analyze and understand what may be bothering me and sometimes just acknowledging the issue is enough for things to go away. Other times I have to meditate for awhile. And other times its my allergies acting up and then I respond accordingly. Hope that helps.

  11. Kitty Ellis

    I have been experiencing heart palpitations, shortness of breath and sweating. My Dr. Is trying to figure out why. He has me on Diltiaz now. It seems to be working, at least now. I also have trouble sleeping sometimes. He prescribed a anxiety med for me to take as needed. It works really well. Thank you for this article. I plan on discussing it with him. It makes me think that a anxiety disorder may be my problem.

    • Andy

      I know it’s a long shot, but could this be a reaction to something chemical? This happens to me for the first couple of weeks of putting the radiators on in winter, so I have to open the windows; I’m guessing it’s something in the radiator paint, perhaps methylisothiazolinone. There are lots of chemicals all around us in the modern world, as well as in food, toiletries and cosmetics, and the water supply – and it only takes one!
      That said, if it is anxiety, then tracking the source and practising relaxation will hopefully take care of it. I wish you the very best of luck, Andy.

    • Srini Pillay

      Kitty-A good general approach to such anxiety is to first exclude medical illnesses such as hyperthyroidism, electrolyte abnormalities, etc. Proper tests can exclude these and other medical illnesses. Then, if there are unusual foods or drinks responsible for this, this should be excluded. Once this is excluded, the nature of anxiety can be understood through a psychiatric lens. Mind wandering is best tried after medical causes are excluded. Thanks for your comment.

  12. Paul Stephens

    Sounds like metacognitive therapy. Do not fight intrusive and over exaggerated fears. Let them do their own thing – namely, let them wander around – but do not give them the attention that they do not warrant. Tough to start but gets easier over time. Paul

    • Srini Pillay

      It does take practice, Paul. Metacognitive therapy does also activate the DMN (the “unfocus” circuit) as it involves self-reflection, understanding others, and mental time travel. Thanks for making the connection for us.

  13. ran

    Thanks it’s make sense for me. Gonna give it a try.

    Relax and let it go

    Thanks from Brazil

    • Srini Pillay

      So glad you will try this out. Building in time in your day to do this is key. Which hour in the day will you take a break to try this out?